NEW YORK — He just kept walking through the stands and babbling about the match as twilight dropped in on Louis Armstrong Stadium yesterday. He was in the middle of this wall of noise and pandemonium and his legs were cramping and his voice was hoarse and the fans were pounding on the glass of the stadium restaurant, while others were standing in awe and singing "Happy Birthday."
This wasn't some rock star on tour, it was just an old guy who happened to be a tennis player coming down after giving everyone another great moment in an incredible career.
Nothing makes sense anymore at the U.S. Open of Jimmy Connors.
Connors celebrated his 39th birthday on the job, slugging it out ++ with a 24-year-old named Aaron Krickstein. Through five sets and four hours and 41 minutes, Connors and Krickstein exchanged forehand and backhand blows. When it ended, with a late-summer breeze cutting through the stadium, and the crowd standing and shivering and the sun setting, Connors was pumping his fists in triumph.
He would not give in to age, the opponent and the night, winning thefourth-round match, 3-6, 7-6 (10-8), 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4). September in New York and Connors, the oldest player in the tournament, advanced to the U.S. Open quarterfinals. On Thursday, he'll meet Paul Haarhuis of the Netherlands, a 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 winner over Carl-Uwe Steeb of Germany.
"I'm playing against kids who are 15 years younger than me and the greatest players in the world and I'm thinking how the hell can I do this?" Connors said.
The Connors story has become a saga. He has won the U.S. Open five times, the first in 1974 against 39-year-old Ken Rosewall and the last in 1983. He has won it on grass, on clay and on hard court.
Now, he's trying to win it again, an old man with a charging style fighting against kids carrying space-age rackets that send balls through chain-link fences. Krickstein was 7 years old when Connors won the Open for the first time.
"Every time I play now, it's a final," Connors said. "I'm in a beautiful position now. Every time I can go out and play those players like they once played me, swinging from the hip."
Once, he was a profane punk who heard the boos of the crowd while laying waste to the old Australian legends who dominated the game in the 1950s and 1960s. His blue-collar baseline style revolutionized tennis, a sport once built on delicacy and artistry.
Now, Connors is the game's beloved old man. For some who watched over the decades as Connors berated officials and fled stadiums in defeat, there may be a sense of sham about his latest incarnation as an American folk hero. But his latest run at the Open is the genuine article. He is George Foreman with a racket, Nolan Ryan with a serve.
Connors came out of the shadows at this year's Open. He began the year ranked No. 998 in the men's computer rankings after undergoing wrist surgery that nearly ended his career. He vowed he would come back and be a force in the game.
"There comes a point in time that athletes feel they're past their prime," he said. "It's no secret. I'm past my prime. But I have more than just tennis, which has carried me through my career. My game was not based on artistry. I've been a work addict. What I have is what the people come to see every time. I don't mind if I come off there bleeding. I don't mind opening up my chest and showing you my heart. That is what tennis needs."
Connors has displayed his heart and provided a glimpse of his soul at this Open.
He went long into the night and the early morning to come back and defeat Patrick McEnroe in five sets in the first round. And yesterday, against Krickstein, a kid who likes to hang out on the baseline, Connors played like the No. 7 subway that rumbles from Times Square to Flushing. He was relentless. He kept coming into the net. A twisted left knee wouldn't stop him. An awful third set wouldn't derail him. A 5-2 deficit in the fifth wouldn't finish him.
He gave the crowd the young punk routine, screaming at chair umpire David Littlefield after one call: "I'm out here playing my butt off at 39 years old and you're doing that."
He gave them two fifth-set games that went 27 minutes that were so dramatic your chest hurt. And he gave them the close. The crowd roaring and shrieking. Jimmy Connors at the net one more time, slamming a backhand volley, and Louis Armstrong Stadium shaking in the night.